Jews around the world and in the Tampa Bay area today are celebrating the little-known holiday of Lag B'Omer (pronounced Log-Bi-O-Mar) with bonfires and barbecues.
It's a joyous occasion that began centuries ago and has a complex history. But its messages of respect for one another and faith in God are still relevant today, maybe now more than ever, said Rabbi David Weizman with Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater.
Literally translated, the Hebrew word "Omer" is a serving of grain. In the Middle East, the "season of hot winds" was a time each year when many crops would be destroyed. So every day that the hot winds didn't come, the farmers would give thanks and bring an offering of barley for God, Weizman said.
Specifically, the day of Lag B'Omer marks the 33rd day of a 49-day period from the end of the holiday of Passover in April until Shavuot on May 29, the anniversary of receiving the Bible from God on Mount Sinai.
Today in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews will make their way to the city of Meron to visit the grave site of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai .
The famed rabbi died nearly 1,900 years ago on this day, but not before revealing many mystical parts of holy writings to his students, said Rabbi Yossi Eber of the Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco.
He wanted it to be a day of celebration, Eber said. Centuries later, Israelis continue to throw parties and bonfires and celebrate life and spirituality. Here, too, in Trinity, Wesley Chapel, Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa, synagogues will host bonfires and barbecues in honor of the day and its history.
"The day of Lag B'Omer is like a wedding between heaven and earth, the flames within us should reach up to heaven," Weizman said. "That's why we have bonfires."
Yet another aspect of this holiday has to do with Rabbi Akiva, another great spiritual leader. Some 24,000 of his students died from a plague because, rabbinical experts say, they didn't have honor and respect for one another.
On this day centuries ago, the students stopped perishing, according to Jewish teaching.
Thousands of years later, Jews traditionally don't do certain things as a sign of mourning during this 49-day period. On the holiday of Lag B'Omer, however, they take a break from mourning and celebrate.
Weizman has a tradition of growing a beard each year during this time, and it's always a topic of conversation among congregants.
Other mourning practices include not listening to live music, not cutting hair and not having weddings.
"Growing a beard is a mourning practice to show that you're in this period of supplication, a time of personal repair or Tikkun," he said.
Rabbi Shalom Adler with Young Israel-Chabad of Pinellas County said the death of Rabbi Akiva's students should remind us that, "One shouldn't think that my opinion is always right," he said. "It's important to respect others' ideas. That's a teaching that's driven home on this holiday."
He added that, "It's important to have public gatherings to show Jewish pride and that we're united, not just to celebrate at home but with the community."